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The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

Test Centre Publications: http://www.testcentre.org.uk

In June this year Phil Maillard wrote the introduction to Test Centre’s collected and complete earliest published books of Chris Torrance’s ongoing poem-cycle The Magic Door. As he says, “They cover the years from 1970, when the poet moved to a cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales, to 1996, thus representing about half of his near-50-year residence there.”
Maillard goes on to make a central statement about Torrance’s poetry:

“The poet inhabits borders and boundaries, between worlds, both physical and imaginative. The portals, gateways and doors so prevalent in the writing open both outwards and inwards.”

This new publication is like a cromlech: the reader passes through the portal covers into a new world and the opening sequence, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time, is the first greeting that one discovers. Published by Albion Village Press in 1973 it consists of poems written at Glynmercher Isaf between June 1970 and October 1972 and contains ‘The Theatre of its Protagonist’s Desires’, dedicated to Andrew Crozier:

“Strode out into the woods with
cat, axe & saw to bring back
mushrooms: Ceps
&Rough-stemmed Boletus: apricot-
lunged Chanterelle; pretty, intoxicant
amanita muscaria emerging
richly red from her
silky membranous fur. The
music becomes more insane, more unreadable.
Tea onto the compost heap. Empty the cats’
shitbox. & then, preferring “my ease
to my will” (Valéry)
nettle & marigold beer
trickles down my throat. Buzzard
flies by the moon as I crouch
down on the porch to watch
Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud crunch up
yet another mouse. My beard has grown
as lushly as my garden. The fire
hisses & flares. The fire in my head
is a crippled demon I am burning up.

September 1970

The title of the poem is taken from a letter sent by Andrew Crozier to Chris Torrance soon after the London poet had arrived in Wales in the summer of 1970. Writing to me in 2006 about this poem Torrance suggested that Crozier’s letter was something along the lines of “the poet finding the right place to fully pursue his work, in the theatre of its protagonist’s desires”.
The opening presents us with a frontiersman’s spirit of determination with the word “stride”. This purposefulness is no meander, that will come later, and the accompanying tools suggest a world more akin to that of Robinson Crusoe than a rural ramble: the cat, for a reminder of domesticity, the axe and saw for the intentional task of survival. The listing of the fungi conveys a movement outward and the sharply sounded separation between “Ceps” and “Rough-stemmed Boletus” followed by the angular sounding “apricot-lunged Chanterelle” is seductively followed by the seemingly innocuous word “pretty” which then sinuously unwinds over the next three lines. Perhaps the word “fur” with which the sentence concludes adds a frisson to the living quality of the poisonous fly agaric which had been previously conjured up by being referred to as “her”.
This poem is located in the immediacy of small events: “tea on the compost heap” or emptying the cats’ shitbox. The meandering quality of thought which succeeds to that purposeful opening is heralded by the preference for taking “my ease” rather than by subduing this to “my will”; the viscous quality of the beer is felt in the contrast of “nettle” and “marigold” before a Keatsian ease is captured in “trickles down my throat”. This accumulation of details, moving the poet outwards from the purposeful opening of the poem is, in conclusion, registered as time passing. The poet’s beard grows lushly as does his garden and the purgative experience of unwinding (an ironic echo of the book’s title, Acrospirical Meanderings, the twisted new growth of a leaf as it pushes out being accompanied by the winding of the Phrygian river) ends with fire. The “hiss & flares” are reflective of a sharply heard and seen burning away of poisonous dross. The poet has passed through a doorway into a new world.

This is just a glimpse into some of the delights of this new Test Centre publication and I shall be doing a further account for PN Review.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2017

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Slipping the Leash Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

Slipping the Leash  Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

In his poem ‘Little Haven’ Graham Hartill asks a serious question:

‘Where does the poem end?
Where are its outsides
in terms of the fields
that stutter away to the silent swollen river
bouncing along with its human trophies:
furniture, cars and mirrors?’

This last-line accumulation is not the same as Philip Larkin’s refusal to present a historical perspective to his lists of semi-industrial landscape detritus. As Donald Davie put it when writing about Larkin in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, there is ‘no measuring of present against past’. Nor is there any sense of what Emerson saw in Carlyle’s The Diamond Necklace where he commented upon the British essayist’s picture of ‘every street, church, parliament house, barrack, baker’s shop, mutton stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands, creeps, rolls, or swims thereabouts…Hence your encyclopediacal allusion to all knowables’. Hartill’s little list is not to do with a profusion of structureless facts and phenomena so overwhelming, according to J.H. Prynne’s notes on The Outlook and Procedures of the Post-Romantic Mind, ‘that the speculative mind, unwilling to re-direct its energies in favour of radical description, also fails to bring off any radical and coherent analysis’. Hartill’s question is about the relation of poem to place; at what point does the poet’s awareness of ‘plastic bags stuck high in trees’ become a mirror in which he is compelled to recognise himself within an environment? If I look for any form of tradition here it is bound to the world of Gary Snyder whose interview with Gene Fowler in 1964 emphasised reaching ‘beyond our social nature’ in order to recognise ‘our relationships in nature’, reaching inward to see the relationships ‘that hold there’.

Snyder’s focus upon the particularities of living also inform Phil Maillard’s work and the exercise of ‘Fixing the Light’ has that firmness of tone and precision of touch which Snyder brought to bear upon making a stew in the Pinacate Desert, ‘Recipe for Locke & Drum’. Maillard’s poem is much more than a list, it is an insight:

‘Remove light bulb
The only problem is the collar
round the fitting, which falls apart
with the removal of the bulb
Get new fitting purchased by Gwain
in Swansea market…’

The cadence of the poem’s conclusion presents the reader with the task done:

‘Put cover back on fuse box
Shake hands all round
Replace furniture
Total running time two minutes
thirty five seconds for
entire operation
Nobody died
Make coffee in new coffee pot
Sit by fire under new light
and drink it’

When Snyder wrote a late poem about ‘How Poetry Comes to Me’ he said that ‘It comes blundering over the / Boulders at night, it stays / Frightened outside the / Range of my campfire / I go to meet it at the / Edge of the light’.
This beautifully produced book from Aquifer (aquiferbooks@gmail.com) is a generous selection from three poets whose work is centred around South Wales and the World. Although Phil Maillard’s homage to Snyder, ‘To Snyder’s Avocado Stone’, does not appear here it is worth referring to and can be located in Grazing the Octave, a Galloping Dog Press publication from Swansea in 1977: ‘there are visions / before you, retained, / markers in the snow / ancient stone figures / seen from miles / still commanding the whole valley’.
Linked to this language of the immediate and the distant, visions marked in transient snow and more lasting stone, there is the work of the third poet riding aboard the troika, Chris Torrance. From his own Galloping Dog Press volume The Diary of Palug’s Cat we are presented with the nearness of the domestic and the reaches of a surrounding sky:

‘I have an idea
certain compartments in my head
are very firmly
locked
shut

WHAT THE HELL
WENT WRONG WITH MY MARRIAGE?

Others, equally,
are bolted
wide open

the sense of freedom

buzzards swirling. The blue sky
beckoning.’

When I wrote about Chris Torrance for PN Review some ten years ago or more (PNR 163, ‘Black Mountain in England 2’) I referred to the critical work of John Freeman, poet, prose-writer and teacher based in Cardiff. In a Stride Research Document from December 2000 he had compared Torrance’s work with that of Charles Olson:

‘Charles Olson set out with his own particular tools to make Gloucester, Massachusetts, real in the Maximus poems; his means of locating Gloucester include the context historical, geographical, geological, mythical and political. A similar range of interests and formidable expertise inform Torrance’s work, in part thanks to Olson’s example. Maximus is not easy reading, but it adds to the idea of what the long poem can do in making a place real, in recreating the whole context in which a living consciousness awakens to reality; rooted in particular location, but open to anything. Anything that can modify human consciousness can find its place in the field of forces constituting the poem.’

In the selection of Torrance’s work in Slipping the Leash we can move beyond boundaries and there is a ‘constant shift / from the frame / of the real / into an infinite, / mythic dissolve’. There are ‘no boundaries to the universe’ and any answer to Graham Hartill’s initial question about ‘where does the poem end’ is perhaps only to be found within the covers of this excellent publication.

Ian Brinton, 13th November 2016

Ric Hool’s A Way Of Falling Upwards (Cinnamon Press)

Ric Hool’s A Way Of Falling Upwards (Cinnamon Press)

Some years ago Ric Hool wrote a short prose piece titled ‘Two Types of Dog’ focussing on a walk on a Greek island. His ability to make the reader feel the ‘thereness’ of a place rose off the page like heat:

 

The dirt road pulled itself up as if it was stalking the blue sky above

 

A lizard, hard to distinguish from stone, didn’t even bother to scurry  away. It just clenched low to the ground, trapping its shadow.

 

This engaging new collection of poems from Cinammon Press has, for me, that same sense of actuality:

 

When night squeezes light to thinness

the reed beds shake back to balance

Webs of life reshape

 

These lines at the end of ‘Initiation’, a poem located in the Japanese Suruga Province, have a feel of Gary Snyder about them. The reed-cutting which is described in the opening five stanzas, gives way to the weariness which ‘closes conversation’ as ‘straws are lit to burn off leeches / turgid on legs’. As the oxen, laden with cut thatch, are towed back to the village there is a sense of wholeness as Hool tells us that ‘What water has grown will keep rain out’. This oneness, this sense of partnership, is then concluded with that light being squeezed (like the water from the reeds) as the world of the reeds ‘shake back to balance’ and those webs of geometric precision and repetition ‘reshape’.

These poems give us a world of interchange as people and their landscapes emerge and spread. On the Tokaido Road a lady dances and then sits with the poet, ‘without conversation’:

 

I am given tart wine to drink

as if taking communion

then follow her to the ends of the Earth

 

The closing lines of Snyder’s ‘Above Pate Valley’ come to mind as do those of ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’:

 

Looking down for miles

Through high still air.’

 

It is no surprise that many of the poems are dedicated to individuals (Eileen Dewhurst, Suzi, Richard Downing, Phil & Val Maillard, Chris Torrance, Chris Hall, Kiki, Steephill Jack, Mikka, Lee Harwood, John Jones, Graham Hartill, Tim Rossiter, Peg, Bill Wyatt). No surprise because the landscapes and the people belong together and that ‘thereness’ is also a ‘hereness’!

 

Ian Brinton, 24th March 2014.

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